Foot in mouth: John Kerry makes a gaffe about the Syrian crisis at the Foreign Office (Credit: AFP/Getty images)
The press briefing at the Foreign Office was a routine affair, a photo-opportunity for the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to show that the Anglo-American special relationship was not in tatters after all by standing alongside the visiting US Secretary of State, John Kerry. The question to Kerry, from Margaret Brennan of CBS, was one of those journalistic afterthoughts, tacked on to the end of a long-winded demand for a response to yet another Syrian denial of culpability: "And secondly, is there anything at this point that [Assad's] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?"
"Sure." John Kerry's reply was unhesitating. "He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that." Then, a snort of dismissal: the busy statesman was evidently impatient with this line of speculation. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."
Kerry had misspoken. Did he realise immediately? Everybody else did. What was obvious to him was by no means so to the Russians and their clients in Damascus. Why wouldn't Assad do it, and why couldn't it be done? Hey presto — a diplomatic démarche! Before Washington had even woken up, a new Russian peace initiative was on the table, intended to delay any US attack until the Greek Kalends. From the Kremlin came the sound of popping corks; from the State Department at Foggy Bottom, the sound of gnashing of teeth; from the Pentagon, the sound of orders countermanded; from the Sixth Fleet off the Syrian coast, the sound of retreat; from Assad's bunker, the sound of "Allahu Akhbar!"
And from the White House? Silence — or was that a sigh of relief? President Obama had been looking for weeks for a way out of launching an unpopular punitive action. Congress had supplied a reason for delay, but a congressional veto would make the President look weak. Obama needed another excuse to jaw-jaw rather than war-war. So he was secretly gratified by the Russian initiative — authorship of which was retrospectively claimed by Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, to great applause in Warsaw. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to the victims of the Syrian civil war: the dozens of towns reduced to rubble, the thousands of corpses, the millions of refugees. While the diplomats and inspectors talked, the war would go on.
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